By Kristy MacKaben
While some kids jump into preschool with gusto and barely look back to wave goodbye, others have trouble adjusting to a different routine and being away from loved ones.
The first day of preschool couldn’t come fast enough for Dana Sarro’s 4-year-old son. Excited to follow in the footsteps of his two older brothers, he eagerly anticipated his first day at Calvary Center Preschool in Annapolis and enjoyed the preschool orientation with the teachers.
But when the first day of school arrived, he was miserable. He was OK when he left the car, but his teachers said it went downhill from there.
“He cried most of the day,” Sarro says. “It was a difficult time for him.”
The Sarros seemed to do everything right when it came to preparing their youngest for preschool. They talked positively about school, visited the preschool before it started, read books, and picked out special clothes and supplies.
Despite the preparations, however, the little boy didn’t fully adjust to preschool until a month and a half after school started. From that point on, he was fine and loved school.
“I knew he’d be fine. He’s my third,” Sarro says. “We just had to stay positive.”
It’s not unusual for kids to have problems adjusting to preschool. Whether separation anxiety is to blame or just difficulty adapting to new situations, some children take longer to feel comfortable.
“Some kids could be so excited, but still have a difficult time transitioning,” says Tiffany McCormick, admissions director at Indian Creek School in Crownsville. “It’s so common for kids to have difficulty. It’s OK to ask the teacher, ‘What should I do?’ but it’s your child, so follow your instincts. You know what may or may not work for your child.”
Ease the transition for your preschooler with the following advice from local experts.
Tips for easing the preschool transition
Talk it up
Preschool is a big deal for little ones and their parents, so make it a celebration and involve children in the preparations. Shop for school supplies and clothes together. Spread the enthusiasm and talk a lot about what to expect from preschool.
“Talk about what the experience will be like,” says Marilyn Betz, director at Calvary Center Preschool. “Read little books about preschool. It’s good for them to actually visualize things.”
Another great idea is to meet up with new classmates before school starts, says Kelly Karpovich of Annapolis who successfully sent off her two kids, Ana Grace (now 5) and Nicholas (now 8) to Indian Creek Preschool without a hitch.
“I would get the lists of students entering that grade and try to arrange preschool-type play dates so kids could get to know each other,” Karpovich says. “That way they could see a familiar face on the first day of school.”
Visit before the first day
The first day of school shouldn’t be the first time a child sets foot in the school. To make sure a child feels comfortable, parents and children should visit the school during the summer.
Most preschools offer orientations or special meet-the-teacher days before school starts. Parents should visit the school a few times before the first day, even to just play on the playground or explore the school.
“Just come and get comfortable before school starts,” Betz says.
While it may be tempting to slip out the door without your tot noticing, it’s important to say goodbye, says McCormick.
“A lot of times we will have parents just sneak out. For some kids that will be more traumatic,” McCormick says. To build trust, parents should say goodbye with a quick hug or kiss and tell their child where they are going and that they will return at the end of preschool. Sometimes it’s OK to give a lovey or something special to leave in a cubby to remind a child that his parents love him and they will return.
“Say goodbye and say you’re leaving and if they’re still crying, that’s OK,” McCormick says.
Shortly after parents leave, children often calm down or become engaged in activities, says McCormick. If a child is having trouble, teachers will try to comfort the child. Once a child is calm, many teachers will text or call parents to assure them their children are OK.
“Some kids cry or cling to their parents. Sometimes they don’t even want to come into the room or they don’t want their parents to leave,” says Anne Schmidt, pre-kindergarten teacher at Annapolis Area Christian School. “We just try to make them feel OK. Kids will eventually realize this is not a bad place.”
But don’t linger
While the experts say not to sneak out, they also advise keeping the goodbyes short. The longer Mom or Dad stays in the classroom, the more the child will depend on a parent for comfort.
“The best thing to do is for parents not to hang out and to have parents leave pretty quickly,” Schmidt says. “The longer the mom stays, and (if) they stay every day, then they expect that.”
Sometimes parents give children something soft like cotton balls to put in their pockets, McCormick says. Squeezing the cotton ball sometimes makes a child feel better or more at ease, she explains. If children are still upset after their parents leave, teachers sometimes encourage them to make cards or pictures to give their parents at the end of the day, McCormick says. Engaging in an activity with other kids usually helps the situation as well.
McCormick experienced the situation personally this summer when her 3-year-old had trouble before a summer program at Indian Creek, where McCormick works. Her daughter was familiar with the school and the teachers, yet she still clung to her mom a little bit when being dropped off.
“She still just wants me to stay,” McCormick says. “It’s weird for me because I’m right around the corner and I can see her through my window on the playground and she’s perfectly fine.”
Children who acclimate immediately to preschool might experience a setback mid-year. After winter break is prime time for little ones to feel uneasy about school, Schmidt says.
Last year one of Schmidt’s students started having trouble around January or February. In the beginning of the year the little girl loved school and adjusted well. Mid-year, however, she began to cry and complain about school.
“Her mom and dad were beside themselves. She was crying. She didn’t want to come to school,” Schmidt says. “She got through it, and she just snapped out of it.”
During those trying times, it’s important for parents to be understanding and sensitive to the child’s feelings, but to also stress the importance of school. Listen to a child’s concerns, but also focus on the positive.
While it’s common for preschoolers to suddenly start having problems a few months into the school year, Schmidt mentioned the importance of considering other stresses in the child’s life — a move, divorce, new baby or other changes at home that might be a reason for the upset. If parents think there may be a specific problem at school causing the issues, communication with the teaching staff is key, she says.
“We keep in close touch with parents and we have an open door policy if parents want to come in and observe at any time,” Schmidt says.
Don’t give in and don’t give up
Experts agree it’s not ideal to let children stay home from school because they don’t like it. School, even preschool, should be something parents and children take seriously. Allowing a child to stay home once might send the wrong message.
“There are just some things you have to do,” Schmidt says. “Plus, they’ll have a lot of fun. It’s not a bad place to be.”
Almost every child eventually adjusts to preschool at his or her own pace, says Karen Cumming, director of Creative Garden Nursery School in Crofton. Communication between parents and teachers is key to a successful and happy preschool year.
“Just know it might be difficult in the beginning,” Cumming says. “We know all children are different and they need that comfort when they start school. … When they don’t want to leave school at the end of the day, that’s success.”